It’s been over three years since Cambodia’s ruling party-controlled courts arbitrarily dissolved the country’s main opposition party and with it the last vestiges of democracy in what is now effectively a single-party dictatorship.
Following the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s dissolution in 2017, European Union foreign ministers threatened targeted sanctions. The European Commission warned the government that failure to backtrack on the human rights crackdown would jeopardize Cambodia’s trade benefits under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which are subject to human rights conditionality. However, Prime Minister Hun Sen showed he cared more about maintaining his vice grip on power than possible repercussions for his country’s economy, and rejected the EU’s requests. In response, the Commission last year partially withdrew Cambodia’s EBA benefits. But the EU foreign ministers failed to act on their part, and their sanctions threat never materialized.
Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Cambodia’s further backsliding on human rights, including recent mass trials against opposition leaders and supporters, attacks on independent media and journalists, and new as well as proposed draconian legislation aimed at crushing dissent. The European Parliament expressed its regret that the Cambodian government failed to meet the conditions necessary to keep the EBA benefits and asked the European Commission to keep a human rights benchmarks approach when engaging with the government. The parliament also urged the EU Council to use its new global human rights sanctions regime to target Cambodian leaders and their economic interests.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report identifying the “Dirty Dozen” – 12 generals who form the backbone of Hun Sen’s abusive, authoritarian rule in Cambodia, and who have enabled it through serious and systematic human rights violations. Last year, we exposed how those individuals, who owe their high-ranking and lucrative positions to political and personal connections with Hun Sen, have amassed large amounts of “unexplained” wealth.
The Commission did not take the decision to withdraw the EBA trade benefits lightly, given its expected consequences for Cambodia’s economy. But targeted sanctions exist precisely to hit only those personally responsible for human rights abuses. As Hun Sen’s crackdown intensifies, so should the EU’s response. EU foreign ministers should finally follow up on their 2018 conclusions and adopt the long overdue sanctions against Cambodia’s “dirty dozen.”